Like so many others, I was first introduced to this wonderful site (which a lesser man might have kept to himself) by Peter Jones. Quite simply of all the many places I’ve taken birding friends to visit in western Andalucia, they always rate the Llanos de Libar valley most highly. This is thanks to the spectacular karst mountain scenery, the diversity of habitats (gardens, pasture, arable, sun-blasted rocky crags and cool oak woodland) and, above all, the birds. Checking on E-bird I find that no less than 128 species have been reported from here, which is exceptionally good for an inland site without a large body of water.
The charming mountain village of Montejaque, gateway to the Llanos de Libar, can be approached along the MA8401 from the south or the MA8403 from the north. Each has its own distractions but arriving from the south you pass the fascinating Cueva de la Pileta (a). Deep in this cave are some fine ancient cave paintings – well worth forgoing a few birds to see (but go in the afternoon when birding’s quieter!). This approach passes through some spectacular scenery and habitats. Look out for Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thursh and passing raptors (Bonelli’s Eagle is quite possible) en route but remember more time spent dawdling here means less time exploring your destination. From Ronda the most direct approach is along the MA 7401 (via Benaojan), which has the advantage of passing the cavernous Cuevo del Gato (b) that is often excellent for Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts. Arriving along the MA8403 from the north (via the A 374 Ronda–Algodonales road) the narrow concrete village road – Ave de Europa – for the Llanos de Libar is an easy right-hand turn just as you reach the first houses in the village by white wall and rubbish/recycling bins. (Arriving from the opposite direction it’s an easily missed and very acute lefthand turn). This concrete road looks an unlikely route, but after c350m an unsignposted and easily missed sharp right up a concrete incline takes you onto the Llanos de Libar track. However note that the track along the valley is now closed to unauthorised vehicles between 1st June and 15th October, so if visiting at those times you will have to park in the village and walk up into the valley (be aware, however, that the roads in the centre of the Montejaque are narrow and labyrinthine so it’s better to park in the lower part of the village). Bear in mind, however, that it is c9km walk (and a rise of c700m) from the village to the Refugio (and another 9 km back!) so if you do walk take plenty of water and prepare accordingly in hot weather. If it’s possible to drive then take great care as the track can be sump-wreckingly rough. I sometimes drive only as far as I’m happy to and, parking the car out of the way (and if possible in the shade), walk the rest of the way.
As you climb up out of the village along the track it’s always worth pausing by an isolated white buildings (c) below the towering hill (Hacho) that guards the entrance to this route, to scan the skies and cliff faces. If there’s anywhere that Bonelli’s Eagle can be said to be a ‘banker’ it’s here. Often it’s the shadow rippling along the cliff face that alerts you to an incoming bird. Both Rock Bunting and Melodious Warbler can show in the scrub and gardens here and there’s a chance of Golden Oriole and even Wryneck. Both here and anywhere along the valley you should expect to see Booted and Short-toed Eagles and plentiful Griffon Vultures. Other raptors such as Black Kite, Egyptian Vulture and Honey Buzzard are possible particularly during migration periods. You can test your ID skills here by comparing the larks seen at lower elevations around the village (Crested) with those further on in more rocky areas (Thekla’s). If this proves too much of a headache then just relax and listen to the simple, yet haunting, song of the Woodlark.
About 400m further on (and just past a second track coming up from the village) there’s a large stony field (d) and, a little further up, a small roadside pool (e). Below the towering cliffs at the junction of this track and the one coming out of the village you’ve an excellent chance of Rock Sparrow (although they can often be easier further up) and Blue Rock Thrush is ubiquitous. The rocky field may hold three species of wheatear – Common, Black and Black-eared Wheatear, Blue – plus the occasional Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. As this is a limestone area, a good source of water can often be at a premium so the pool here sucks in thirsty birds such as Linnet, Goldfinch, Serin, Rock and Cirl Buntings, Sardinian and Melodious Warbler.
Continuing uphill along an increasingly rocky track after c2.5 km you come to a rocky ‘saddle’ (f) where you can pull over onto a small flat grassy area. This locality rarely disappoints. It’s a great spot for Black Redstart, Black-eared and Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting and Rock Sparrow (listen for a sparrow with a bad cold!) – and Lesser Kestrel in its ‘natural habitat’. In late autumn, winter and into spring this is often a good spot for Alpine Accentor and Ring Ouzel. This is also a good area for botanising with attractive plants like bright pink peonies and Yellow Bee Orchid. Go uphill for another 100m or so to where the track bends to the left by an isolated tree (g). If you haven’t heard them already, listen here for Orphean Warbler. Dartford Warbler hide in the scrub as does Spectacled Warbler, but Subalpine Warbler can often be more easy to find on the wooded hillsides. As you continue along the track past this point the rocks, surprisingly, give way and you drop down towards a farm and through an area of flat fields (h). Those familiar with the geomorphology of limestone areas may be less surprised as this is a classic “polje” formed when deposits drained from the surrounding land block the crevices that provide drainage. Like anywhere along this route this can be a good spot to stop and scan the hillsides and rocky peaks for raptors; check large vultures carefully as in recent years Black Vulture has regularly turned up here. At the far side of this area go through the gate and on into the oak woodland.
These open woods (i) can have a whiff of more northerly climes with Mistle Thrush, Jay and Common Redstart, but Bonelli’s Warbler, Iberian Chiffchaff and Subalpine Warbler remind you that you’re further south. Continue through the woods for about 3 km until you reach some old iron gates on your right and further on an old finca (j). The open grassy area beyond has Iberian Grey Shrike and listen for Chough. This is a glorious area to sit in the shade and wait for whatever passes overhead or can be winkled out of the scrub. If you’ve not already spotted them look out for Rock and Cirl Buntings here. The track continues along the valley at the head of which a footpath can take you over the ridge to Cortes de la Frontera (c9km) something that more energetic walkers might want to try. Buses back to your starting point are few so you may have to get a taxi back to Montejaque.
This is an unmissable site where surprises are always possible but it’s for the excellent selection of attractive montane species and raptors that makes it special. If you’ve time, then you can also explore the track that runs behind Hacho (k) for raptors, Black and Black-eared Wheatear, Rock Sparrow, etc. Similarly the steep walk up to the Ermita (l) above the village can be productive and affords splendid views of the village. A little further afield the walk along the river from Benoajan station (m) can be productive for Golden Oriole, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Kingfisher, etc.
This article is adapted from John’s ‘Birding Cadiz Province‘ guide which contains details of many more sites (including some just over the border into other provinces). It’s free to birders, although donations to charity for their use are very welcome, particularly to Age UK & Alzheimer’s Research UK in memory of John’s late wife Liz via https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SomeoneSpecial/LizCantelo – the amount so raised, with gift aid, now exceeds £1,800.
Contact the Society with your email address and John will email a copy to you. Good birding!
Article and map: John Cantelo
Photos: Peter Jones
Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.